Deepen the Dialogue on School Gun Violence–A Facilitator’s Approach


Almost exactly a year ago I wrote about eight ways to process a tragedy using the ToP (Technology of Participation) Focused Conversation method. Each conversation was designed for a specific group in mind. For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been processing the US school shootings – one in a high school and one in a middle school. It’s difficult to talk about a subject so full of emotion. I feel helpless and clueless. But I do think there is a role for facilitators to play in reducing or ending school gun violence or any kind of violence for that matter. I don’t know whether the school gun violence phenomenon is also currently happening in other parts of the world. I hear it is not nearly as prevalent in some countries and where it was prevalent, the incidence has declined significantly in the last decade especially in some European countries. Japan, Australia, Norway and the UK are cited as countries with the lowest gun violence (not just schools but overall). More in resources below also. So today I’m going to share how I would design a large short beginning multi-stakeholder event focused at the following question:

How can we create a safe, inclusive, gun-free environment in all our schools?
I include the process I would go through and a very simple design for a four hour event with a diverse stakeholder group.

My intent is to give me some relief to talk about it with my facilitation community, to inspire each of you to take some action. I also hope you will share this idea with any one you know in the education system. Could they consider a facilitated approach to help start a long term movement to ending gun violence in schools? For those not in the USA, you may find this interesting to think about how to get a larger and deeper dialogue going on a very challenging topic that is affecting the very fabric of your society (climate change, youth suicide, poverty, war, homelessness, etc.)

Step 1: Determine the Central Question

Actually the first step to design is to figure out exactly what you want to talk about. A facilitator ideally will help a group first find the key question that they want the group to address. In the Technology of Participation, we call this the focus question. However, I’ve come up with the term the “Central Question” as a way to indicate a question that will address the most important thing a group can do in its time together. It is the question that is the underlying theme of every activity that the group undertakes.

Step 2: Decide Who and How Many Should Attend

After the group is satisfied they have the right central question, I would think about who might attend and be able to contribute to the conversation. In the case of schools, it might include education policy makers such as school board members. It for sure would include the teachers, some of the older students, parents, parent council members. If you wanted to broaden it, you might even include local gun shop owners, members of the NRA (National Rifle Association), and others with very different points of view. Knowing who will attend will definitely affect how you design the event. Knowing how many attend will also be an important consideration. ou might want to make the event open to anyone who is interested. However, for the first such event I might try to restrict the number of people attending and do it by invitation. That allows you to really take stock all the perspectives of the room and better be able to design for a more open public event as a second step in the process.

These first two things you may have decided with the key decision maker- your main client. You could also refine them or draft them with a planning committee. See step 3 below.

Step 3: Explore the Initial Design with a Diverse Planning Committee

The third thing I would do would be to bring together a group of 5-8 people from these various groups to help think about the activities that would best fit the needs and experience of the group. For example, if your event is scheduled close to a recent violent gun incident in the area, you know emotions will be running very high. The design I am suggesting below would be for a group that can be thoughtful and perhaps less triggered emotionally so they can not only process the emotions but also think about long term strategies to solve the problem.

Ok! You now know more or less the key question you’re going to address, the people who will attend and the general tone of the event. You also now have a small group of representative people to help design very specific processes that you will use as the facilitator. These are a few of the questions I would ask this planning group:

  • What do the people we are inviting already know about this topic?What expertise do they brin
  • What is the optimal amount of time and time of day this group could spend together?
  • What are the various perspectives we might hear from anyone attending?
  • What are the specific products, decisions that would help us feel we are moving forward?
  • What would we expect the mood to be at the beginning of the event?
  • What would we want the mood to be at the end of the event?
  • What other factors do we need to take into account in terms of participant needs, e.g. language, mobility issues, ability to see and hear the activities, available space, ways we would reach out to potential attendees, and other logistics?
  • What are some of the warm up questions we could ask them to help them think about answering the central question?
  • There would probably be other questions I’d ask of this planning committee, but this would give a facilitator a good start with what to do with the group on the day of the big event. Below I outline an imaginary case study of what I might have learned from a planning committee.

Step 4: Review the Information You Have Gathered

Imagine the planning group has said that they would use the school gymnasium and the optimal timing would be from 15:00-19:00 h. Simple food would be served. There are lots of microphones. The school has access to interpreters for the main languages spoken by various group members. A disability/mobility plan has been developed to ensure easy wheelchair access to gym and bathrooms. Enough space is available to ensure people can hear each other in small groups. You have determined that the general mood will be anxious, scared, determined, and potentially angry before they arrive. The planning group has said they want the event to increase hopefulness and leave people feeling more control over the situation. They want the group to come up with a communication policy to share information about gun violence policy with all parents and students. They also said it would be helpful to come up with five ways to increase safety without resorting to arming (i.e. giving guns to) teachers. Here’s a draft agenda for the big event based on what I as a facilitator learned from this group.

Step 5: Draft an Outline

Opening Activity

Have people sitting in groups of 5. Encourage diverse perspectives to be sitting at each table by giving them colored dots on their name tags when they come in. Each table needs to have 3-4 different colors of dots. A written instruction is provided to each table group to share their name, their role in this topic, one thing they feel hopeful about and one thing they feel scared about. This activity starts to connect people across differences and see where they share some common feelings. It reduces the us vs. them tendency. It helps people quickly dive below the surface level feelings.

Review the process, group norms, and timing, when dinner will be served etc.

Sharing Data & Solutions Activity

The World Café method (see more in resources section below) involves groups of 4-5 people spending 10-25 minutes visiting each of 3-5 tables which are topic specific. If it is a large group you can have tables of 6-8 people or, have 2-3 tables each with same question (e.g., in this case):

Table 1 Topic) What policies are in place already to help produce gun violence and increase safety in schools? This topic would also include any efforts that are being made by those not directly involved in the education system, e.g. gun shop owners, NRA members, other interested public.

Table 2 Topic) What has worked well in the past, here or elsewhere, locally, regionally, nationally and internationally to help keep schools safe?

Table 3 Topic) What are some new initiatives, projects, campaigns that people are considering for schools here and elsewhere?

Table 4 Topic) If we did nothing else, what actions would complement current initiatives and effectively use the resources that we have?

Table 5 Topic) If a 5th table is needed, we could ask the group: what are extremely simple, inexpensive but effective actions to take in the near future that have been underused or used elsewhere effectively?

This activity serves to help gather a large number of good data and ideas on the topic. People feel empowered generating this data and it gives a full picture on the situation. Design your questions so they are simple and able to be answered by almost anyone in the room. Provide print-outs of research on each table if helpful to get the group started.
Report Back Activity Landscape

This is still part of the World Café method but I’ve named it separately here so that you can see it’s a distinct activity. The starting group for each table topic would come back to their original table(s) to take time to summarize the key highlights on the question. They would be given large sheets of paper and colorful markers and/or be encouraged to enter their key findings/ recommendations data onto PowerPoint slides. You would need to allow up to 30 minutes to synthesize the information before it was shared with the larger group. Then each table would report back key findings/ perspectives. A period of taking 2-3 comments of feedback after each report back can be very helpful. This activity ensures everyone has a picture of full l andscape.

Closing Activity

Each person goes back to their original opening activity group and shares one thing they are hopeful about and one commitment they are willing to take to help make the school safer. These are recorded on index cards and submitted with names and contact information to the coordinating group.

This gives everyone a chance to reconnect with people who were initially very different from them and see a pathway forward.

Final Thoughts

I’ve deliberately kept this design extremely simple. Yet I think it can be a powerful beginning to start a conversation around a difficult topic. It also starts to build ownership for the challenge at hand. It involves all the potential perspectives so a full picture can be considered.

Part of my reason for sharing this is to also potentially motivate some of you to reach out to your schools and school boards to begin these conversations. I imagine much is already being done that I am not aware of. The role of facilitators however is to focus the dialogue away from blame, discouragement, despair and reactive measures. The intent is to start to create conversations and actions that are hopeful, long term and strategic. There obviously would need to be many more follow-up interventions such as creating region-wide strategies that local authorities customize for their own situation.

I would be delighted to hear your thoughts. This is just my beginning thinking. It has been really emotional for me to even think about this. Thanks for listening.


Eight Ways to Process a Tragedy

Four Steps to Elegant Meeting Design

Subscribe to our YouTube channel! Here’s our video to the World Cafe technique

These four countries have nearly eliminated gun deaths – here’s what the US can learn

Europeans had school shootings, too. Then they did something about it.

Posted in

Barbara MacKay

Barbara loves “everything facilitation”. She thinks BIG! She loves working with other facilitators around the globe to create transformational results for client groups. She loves teaching others how to do that. She loves presenting at global facilitator conferences. She loves certifying new professional facilitators. If you also love what process facilitation can do for the world, connect with her – virtually or in person. She believes facilitation processes, used well, will provide the roadmap to a more just and sustainable world.


  1. Alicia L Lanier on May 29, 2018 at 4:02 pm

    Thank you so much for sharing, Barbara. I continue to learn and grow through you!

Leave a Comment